A peer-to-peer approach to supporting think tanks in Zambia

8 December 2014

[Editor’s note: This post has been written by Guy Lodge and Will Paxton, senior advisers on ZEAP, a DfID funded programme in Zambia. Guy Lodge is Associate Director at IPPR and Gwilym Gibbon Fellow, Nuffield College, Oxford. Will Paxton worked at IPPR from 2000 to 2005 and was an advisor in the UK government from 2005-2010, working for UK Prime Minister, Gordon Brown MP, 2008-2010.]

[Editor’s note: This post merits a longer introduction. ZEAP is a project I was involved in designing back in 2012 -although I have not been involved in its implementation. The design drew from the lessons that were emerging from the Think Tank Initiative and the Knowledge Sector Initiative (which back then was still in design phase). At the same time, this informed my own thinking on the concept of an unmediated aid model. The original design of ZEAP had two important elements that are worth mentioning here: first, it aimed to improve the quality of the public debate and as a consequence it targeted the ‘system’ much like the KSI was gearing up to do; and second, the project involved a low-cost people focused approach in which Zambian thinktankers would interact with each other, with their peers in the media, the private second and government, and, crucially, with more experienced thinktankers. In the event, some changes and improvements were made during implementation. This post focuses on the role of experienced thinktankers in supporting think tanks.]

Zambia is going through a political transition. Its populist president, Michael Sata, died in October this year.  After a period under the interim leadership of the first White head of state in democratic post-colonial Africa, the nation goes to the polls in a Presidential by-election early in the new year (January 20th). Much media interest, as always, obsesses with personality politics and outbreaks of factionalism within the ruling Patriotic Front. But recent strengthening of local think tanks, through a groundbreaking new programme of support, will help bring more substantive policy issues to the fore this time around.

The Zambian Economic Advocacy Programme (ZEAP) – funded by the UK government – has been running for over a year; it will conclude in 2016.  Each of the five think tanks it supports is distinct.  Some, like the Zambian Institute for Policy Analysis and Research (ZIPAR) and the Indaba Agricultural Policy and Research Institute (IAPRI) have impressive research tack-records and expertise.  In contrast the Centre for Trade Policy Development (CTPD) and Consumer Unity and Trust Society (CUTS-Lusaka) have more of a history of public advocacy.  Finally the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection (JCTR) draws heavily on its core social justice values, with its flagship product – a measure of the cost of living in Zambia called the Basic Needs Basket – regularly informing public debate.

But while different in ethos and history, all these institutions are driven to improve their contribution to public debate – and ultimately to influence and improve policy decisions in Zambia.   ZIPAR, while strong on the research side, have singled out the need to improve the rigour of their policy analysis in this research and overhaul their media operation so they can disseminate their work better.  CTPD, already good at advocacy, have increased their chances of impact by teaming up with IAPRI on the highly salient issue of the government’s role in the maize sector.  The effect is already tangible. ZIPAR’s visibility and therefore relevance is up.  And the IAPRI-CTPD combo scored a policy victory when the Government of Zambia announced the ending of ad hoc restrictions of maize exports – something that CTPD-IAPRI research showed held back Zambian economic growth.

These successes are ultimately down to the leadership and hard work of the staff in each think tank. The calibre of people is high and their commitment to a better Zambia unquestionable.  ZEAP’s role is emphatically not to determine policy conclusions, nor decide which issues each organisation should work on, but instead to provide bespoke advice on how to conduct and communicate research that can influence policy in a complex and fluid political environment. In the words of Dr Antony Chapoto, Research Director, at IAPRI:

At IAPRI we recognised that one of our challenges was to better package and communicate important research findings to effect policy change.  The great thing about ZEAP is how it has provided advice and support which has been tailored to what we need – it has helped us address just this issue.  The back and forth interaction with ZEAP experts has proved to be very useful and this support is helping us to deliver the policy changes we all want to see in the country.

This captures nicely the ZEAP approach – at its heart is a form of peer-to-peer advice and support.

Peer-to-peer support

The ZEAP team are different to traditional consultants: we are not flown in to prescribe policy solutions from on high. Instead ZEAP uses the considerable experience of its team to provide a mix of on the ground mentoring and strategic advice to help think tanks strengthen their own capacity to perform a wide range of think tank functions from policy analysis and development to effective advocacy and dissemination. ZEAP has also contributed significantly to strengthening the financial and operational systems – as well as the websites – that effective think tanks depend on.

What does it mean to be a ‘peer’? Between us, we have over fifteen years of experience working at one of the UK’s leading think tanks, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR). As a result, we have a first-hand understanding of what makes think tanks operating at the national level tick. In the words of Antonia Mutoro, the Director of a Rwandan think tank called IPAR-Rwanda – where we worked over an 18 month period – we “speak the same language”. In addition, one of us worked for five years as an adviser at the heart of the UK government, including for two years advising the UK Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, based in the in the No10 Policy Unit. This perspective ensures we have a strong feel for what policymakers at the heart of government want from think tanks. The other is a Fellow at Nuffield College, University of Oxford and has extensive experience of working with academics on major research projects. This rounded experience means we know the world in which organisations like ZIPAR, IAPRI, CTPD and CUTS live and operate. And it’s this that allows us to offer support which resonates.

Combined with this kind of informed advice is the relatively focused and sustained nature of ZEAP: as well as running for three years, it has a clear and achievable goal of improving the think tanks’ capacity. Working in just one country for three years creates real opportunities for lasting change. We will never possess the kind of instinctive understanding for Zambian politics that Zambian’s will naturally have, but we do need to tailor the advice and support the specific context. Just as working in Rwanda over 18 months allowed for this, in Lusaka the support to each think tank has reflected both their own needs and ambitions, but also the context in which they are seeking to influence policy.

So as the presidential hopefuls slug it out in the bear pit of Zambian politics, stronger think tanks are playing a vital role in informing public debate. ZIPAR were recently– after a spate of press coverage – paid an unannounced visit by one of the senior politicians seeking to become the next President of Zambia. Looking beyond the election, over the lifetime of the ZEAP programme the potential lasting impact is considerable: four or five vibrant, robust and relevant think tanks helping inform public debate and policy making.  On its own it is not going to transform Zambia, but as a tangible contribution to a better future leaving such stronger institutions would be a lasting legacy for ZEAP and one we would be proud of.